Why Are Three Americans Still Being Held in Iran?

Amnesty International is lobbying for the release of three American scholars of Iranian descent now being held in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran.

There is little chance, however, that Amnesty's appeal will have any impact on Iranian authorities, who are currently engaged in a widespread crackdown on civil society inside Iran.

The best known prisoner is Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, a distinguished professor and director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars in Washington, D.C. She is also very well known to me, a friend for more than 25 years.

Esfandiari and I met when we were both living in Tehran in the early '70s under the regime of the shah. I was a freelance journalist and she was a writer and academic, married to a professor, Dr. Shaul Bakhash, and with a young family.

When my husband, the BBC reporter John Bierman, was expelled by the shah for reporting on unrest that his regime was attempting to suppress, Esfandiari and Bakhash were the only Iranians brave enough to come and see us as we hastily packed up our belongings. I remember Esfandiari pointing out the cars parked on the street near our house, saying that Savak (the shah's secret police) was watching our every move. And of course, Savak was watching Esfandiari and Bakhash too.

Esfandiari fled Iran during the revolution in 1979 and she and Bakhash built successful and distinguished academic careers in the United States, both becoming American citizens. But Esfandiari would return to Iran from time to time to visit her family, especially her mother, now age 93.

It was on her last visit in December that she was ambushed by masked armed men who seized her belongings, including her passport. When she applied for a replacement, she was subjected to daily interrogation by Iranian intelligence officials about U.S. programs on Iran, and put under virtual house arrest. On May 8 she was taken to Evin prison, where she has been in solitary confinement ever since.

On June 12 Esfandiari was formally charged with espionage and "endangering national security." These are charges that could carry the death penalty.

Esfandiari has the best lawyer in Iran: the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. But Ebadi said she has not been allowed to see or even speak to her client in spite of repeated attempts to do so. Ebadi is a fearless human rights activist in the country who doesn't take no for an answer. If anyone can help Esfandiari, she can.

Esfandiari's husband said that she has been allowed only to make very brief phone calls to her mother, lasting less than a minute and always monitored by a minder. He believes that she is still in solitary confinement, and that like other prisoners in the "security ward," would not be permitted to sleep on a mattress, only a blanket on a concrete floor. She is almost certainly being interrogated and even tortured in attempts to get her to sign a false confession.

Esfandiari is a very attractive, elegant woman with a beautiful, musical voice and lovely smile. She doesn't look her 67 years, or at least, she did not until she became a victim of the current Iranian regime. Bakhash said she has macular degeneration in her eyes and a bone condition for which she needs medication. Attempts by her mother to have pills delivered for her have been turned away at the prison gate.

Experts say that Esfandiari and the other jailed Iranian-Americans have become hostages to Iran's paranoia about the U.S. administration's recent program to promote democracy in Iran. Tehran has since cracked down on human rights advocates, labor and women's groups inside the country.

As director of the Mideast Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center (which receives no government money) Esfandiari brought many scholars from Tehran to speak in the United States and offer a range of opinions on Iran. The irony is that in Washington, she was sometimes criticized for giving a platform to people who were supporters of the Iranian government. By subjecting her to this appalling treatment, the Iranian authorities are persecuting an advocate for diplomacy, moderation and dialogue.

I feel terrible about the fate of my friend, to the point of feeling guilty about my own free and privileged life in a civilized, democratic country. I think of her lying on the hard floor of an airless cell, facing interrogation, probably torture, having to draw on all her reserves of moral and physical courage. I pray for her release, knowing this must all be taking a terrible toll on her small body.

If you share my concern about Haleh Esfandiari, there is an online petition for her, which is being sent to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and to Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Log on to http://www.freehaleh.org/ It could help.